Response to a teacher re race

As quick as I can be 🙂
I am assuming you have students of various ethnicities in your classes. Much of what I write here has to do with teachers’ ability to meet such students where they are; some of this may not apply to your situation so just consider it a general ramble.
First, race in humans was discredited by the mid-20th century by scientists, so it has no scientific basis. When social scientists describe race as a social construct, it drives some people crazy, but even a brief survey of who is “black”, “white”, “yellow”, “red”, etc. i.e. Asian, Caucasian, Negroid or whatever, reveals the absurdity of such classifications, which were based on notions of “scientific racism” current in the 19th century (Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man is a great place to review all that).
But how is “race” used now, and esp. ‘racism’? One student complained not that it was unfair that teachers could have coffee in the classroom but students were not allowed drinks in class, but that it was “racist”. True story and he wasn’t being funny. IOW, racist is used to label any unfair act of discrimination.
So when I say the word race is problematic, I mean the definition of the word #1 has no basis in science and #2 depends entirely on who’s using it and in what context. “The race of man”, “the human race”, “racial problems in Chicago”, etc. An example of euphemisms for race was the mayor of Memphis, interviewed on NPR and responding to the interviewer’s mentioning his city is 78% Black, saying, “Yes, Memphis is predominantly urban.” Urban? You mean it’s a city? No, it’s African-American. That of course came about as a euphemism referring to inner-city schools in Black areas as “urban”. “Changing demographics” means only one thing in edu-speak: more Blacks and Hispanics.
But all this is right up our alley as language experts. All languages do this. Your colleagues in Spanish can tell you that “raza” is not equivalent to English “race”; I’m not even sure American English “race” is equivalent to “race” in the U.K. How long ago was it that people referred to the “French race” and the “German race”? Echos of lethal racial policies do nothing but cloud the situation.
When I was young, the word was “nationality”, as in the song by the Staple Singers; people of a different nationality did not mean people from other countries but people of various “racial” categories in the U.S. like White and Black. Older people still use it this way. So when someone asks you what “nationality” you are, it may be b/c you have an accent but they may mean it differently. (Hilarious incident when our exchange student from Azerbaijan, a country in the Caucuses, was told by one of our kids, “I’m Caucasian” and Lala responded with, “Oh, you are? So am i!.” It took a while to sort that one out.
I’m throwing all this out there for two reasons: to justify my admonitions in the previous post about getting into certain areas with 15 year olds and to have you note some of the earlier discussions on flteach where attitudes came out in posts that do not contribute to a healthy environment in schools with a mixed population. The paucity of discussion on this and other lists do not allow for this variety of views, but for those of us on flteach lo these two decades we remember some very heated discussions. So you cannot assume your colleagues in your school will all be on board with your determination to talk about race nor with your belief that teachers have a duty to deal with this issue. And it is very easy to slam someone who has the guts to deal with what we call “race.” Your efforts will not necessarily be appreciated.
Some students of color (what used to be called minority students) may object to “race talk” b/c it makes them the target of classmates. One teacher at ACTFL gave a marvelous talk on the time she was being awarded something by a Black organization for her efforts to get more Black students in AP FL classes and suddenly found herself very nervous that she would be “the only White person” there and then realizing that was exactly what she had been asking her Black students to be: the only person of color in an AP class. Such insight is uncommon.
I just read an article on “mircoaggressions” which my wife profoundly disagreed with. You will not meet another Black person with deeper roots in Black culture (East Texas bayou country) than my wife nor prouder of Black culture and language, but enforcing a no-hats rule and no-cussing rule as “aggression” struck her as over the top. I was ambivalent b/c of issues like this: the head of the LAUSD (much reviled) told an interviewer that he had lowered the number of Black students dropping out and raised the number in AP classes simply by removing from the disciplinary referral form “Willful Defiance”. How true that is I don’t know but when I subbed one year, the same was true of those schools as of mine: AP classes White, detention room Black (think of the movie Hairspray). For an understanding of this, read Thomas Koch’s Black and White Styles in Conflict. My wife’s “problem” (don’t tell her I said that) is that she assumes everyone reads Black kids’ behavior the way she does, knowing lack of familiarity with customary ways of expressing oneself among Whites leads to a clash. I was approached over and over by White teachers asking me to help them understand what was going on with students – they really wanted to know, whereas other teachers just figured they were jerks and wrote them off as “behavior problems”.
I’m getting prolix here b/c I just noticed this post was private from you and will not go to the listserv. That’s OK. I’ve written these things over the years there to lots of praise and some condemnation. A wonderful resource is Laurie Clarcq. Her blog is heartsforteaching.

To ask teachers in my school to be familiar with the cultures represented (Mexican, Mexican-American, Black, Mormon, and Native American besides general White) was asking a lot. So I began looking at what teachers can do who do not have the background in those cultures I have due to a previous career and my personal life and came up with “observation”. It came out of my counseling background where you pace your client. Pacing is different from imitating; you adjust you posture, speech, and demeanor to your interlocutor while maintaining your own identify and role. Tricky, huh? It works with other cultures and the mini- and sub-cultures of our own country.
But with practice it becomes automatic. Despite many years as the only White in social groups, I don’t “act Black” in any way, although expressions and gestures do come out unthinkingly. But I don’t clash either. I noticed my son has unconsciously picked up little expressions and accents used by many Hispanic kids since his district is 98% Hispanic; it’s natural.
As I ramble on, let me remind you that I am writing Bob & Jean to get off the listserv, so try me at either or or my blog at Feel free to ask about reading material or even experiences like attending a Black church, esp, your students’ church to see how the little suckers behave when Big Mama or M’Dear are watching. I remember getting the attention of some kids when I was talking about customs of dress in Hispanophone cultures and remarked that we have variations here, too and addressed myself to the Black kids: “Like ladies in church wearing hats.” Church ladies and magnificent head structures go together in Black culture, so they got my point even though I lost some of the other kids. Those are inside points you can make if you are familiar with the culture but they are hardly necessary to establish rapport.
BTW, I’ve never explained this: I capitalize Black and White when referring to an ethnic group, just as we capitalize Polish and Italian and Greek. You mostly will see the words uncapitalized.
Right now my French is being pushed to its limits. I went on YouTube and found this charming video of a music/dance group in the DR of the Congo and I put a question into the comment section. Lo and behold, the agent for the group responded very generously and we have a little Q&A going e.g. the singer/dancer has a bell with a clapper – very unusual in Africa – and how come that is? I’m also reading Harry Potter and Marcel Proust in French (how’s that for a stretch?). I’m glad to see French pushing back against the Spanish wave; I taught Sp for 20 years and love it, but it is lazy of our educators to fail to offer other world languages. At one time our school offered Spanish, French, German, Latin, Russian, and ASL as well as ESL.
Ah, les jours d’antan!
Pat Barrett
Here’s my post to the listserv:

Gosh! Just as I’m writing my swan song (I’m divesting myself of all media except my blog at Pat’s Polemics and general e-mail), I see a post getting to the type of topic so often entered into by participants on flteach in years gone by. I’ve been on flteach since, I believe, 1996. 

Because my wife and I were in a mixed marriage, we were enlisted by churches and sociology classes even before we got married (1964) and our boy about to turn fifty next month remembers talking to sociology classes at ASU at age 5. Those were the days! My own experience teaching started in the mid-80s in the reddest of red zones in the U.S. (the East Valley of Maricopa County, AZ, Sheriff Joe country) and I was puzzled why kids shushed me when I referred to the President of Mexico as a Mexican (used as a slur in their homes) – no kidding. So not only did my wife and I teach classes and give talks on multiculturalism before it became diversity, I put that orientation to the world’s people into action in my classroom.

I taught Spanish, Russian and Latin. It’s easy to generate discussions of race in Spanish class b/c of the Native American and African origins of Hispanic people in the New World (I noted that the hoary old El Camino Real took until the second year book to even acknowledge the presence of Blacks in Hispania despite Cuba having a significant Black population (1950s). So we’ve made progress. If you have lots of personal experience as a person of color in this country or closely associated with them (family members, not workmates), you have something to work with; if not, then READ!

Certain issues are fraught: slavery, segregation, skin color and hair texture. Those issues are very sensitive for people of color who often deal with prejudice in their own groups based on color and hair – I’d just stay away from those issues. Slavery and segregation are often thought of in terms of stereotypes and Hollywood movies, so unless you’re prepared to tackle all that, I’d stay away. What you can do is first of all check out your students, or, as we used to say, see where they’re coming from. Many White students are very sensitive to injustice but some will see accusations of racism as a form of injustice. Very tricky. An example for French of a stereotype is that the French did not discriminate against people of color, kind of like Brazilians aren’t racist. The French had and still have a different approach to the issue but it’s still an issue.

So to me, the safest thing is to retreat into history. You’re on firmer ground there, pointing out the differing policies on color among the varied colonial powers both in Africa and in the New World. Recently we’ve had a perfect example of a stereotype of African countries coming from the highest source (OK, maybe not THE highest). The history of Haiti can be presented in a way so as to show cultural achievements (Negritude) and heroic figures (Toussaint) along with a sobering dose of American intervention. For religious reasons, I’d stay away from Vodou despite its fascinating nature and almost 100% penetration of the populace. Others with much greater knowledge of Francophonie should be able to offer more specifics and references.

These issues loom large in our schools. When I was in the counselor ed program in the early 70s, aspirants told me they didn’t need to know anything about Hispanics or Blacks b/c they were going to work in White districts (a thing then); I wonder what happened to them in the 90s, here in Arizona. 🙂

The word “race” itself is problematic as are racist and racial, but that discussion is something to be conducted elsewhere.

Which leads me to my swan song. Back in 2011 I decided to leave flteach b/c the discussion then, whether learning a fl is like learning history or math, got pretty vicious, but the responses were so encouraging whether they agreed with my position or not that I stayed on. Now the exigencies of life have conspired to eject me from all my listservs and other on-line activities except for general e-mail and my blog at

I invite you to contact me at my blog for further discussion of these issues.

Pat Barrett – appreciating the magnificent and exciting ride on flteach all these years. Thanks, Jean and Bob, and thanks to all the participants. And, as the late great Marilyn Barrueta said: Pat’s a MAN! and: Assume good intentions.

One Comment

  1. Sally says:

    How can I receive a message in my e-mail to your posts? Do I have to sign in to your blog?

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